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The bylaws of the Williamsburg City Council state citizens have exactly three minutes to speak during the open forum period of meetings, but in practice, those “three minutes” can last a long time.
The rule has been in place for years, but was rarely enforced by the City Council, allowing speakers to finish their comments — no matter how long it took.
That practice is likely to change, as attendees at City Council meetings will notice a new addition to the chambers in the Municipal Building – a timekeeping device on the speaker’s podium.
The electronic timer features three lights — one green, one yellow and one red — that signal when a speaker’s time has elapsed, replacing the more traditional “whenever the speaker finishes.”
While the new devices mark speakers’ times during open forums, they also mark the end of an era.
“Since I’ve been on [City Council], I can’t remember anyone being called off [for time],” said Councilman Scott Foster, who was first elected to the council in 2010.
The timer system came without fanfare, but council members have already changed the time limit, voting at their April 9 meeting to extend the open forum time limit to five minutes.
Mayor Clyde Haulman will find himself in the unfamiliar position of gaveling off long-winded speakers, but his long-pocketed gavel could have contributed to the installation of the electronic timers.
“We’ve always had sort of a policy to limit speakers to three minutes,” Haulman said. “I’ve not always been very good at doing that.”
Haulman admitted he had let speakers flout the policy in the past, allowing comments of three, four, or even five minutes.
“I would try to give kind of a gentle reminder to the speaker to please come to a conclusion,” Haulman said.
Haulman said his hesitance to limit comments might have come from his more than 40 years of experience as a professor of economics at the College of William & Mary.
“Part of it may be I’m an academic,” he said. “The whole thing is to let students talk things out.”
No City Council member has come out against the timer, and each has affirmed the importance of public comments to local government.
“You try to listen. It’s a democracy, right?” Councilwoman Judy Knudson said. “You’re elected, and then you’re supposed to listen.”
But Knudson, who has served on both the City Council and the James City County Board of Supervisors, said there were situations when a time limit for comments made sense.
“Sometimes people would get up to the podium and just go on and on and on and on,” she said. “I’m an old League of Women Voters member, and let me tell you, when they have debates, they’re timed.”
Knudson said enforcing time limits had the dual benefits of keeping public meetings on schedule and encouraging speakers to talk about relevant issues.
“The good thing about the city is that most of our speakers are on topic,” she said. “But you look at some other places, and they’re talking about things that aren’t on the agenda or aren’t even in the county. That seems rude to me.”
That rudeness is unlikely to be seen at Williamsburg public meetings, with the now five-minute policy ready to be enforced by the power of flashing lights and Haulman’s reinvigorated gavel.
“I think it’s just a way to remind people more than anything else,” Haulman said.